How to train an abused dog, and how to deal with owners who don't want to.
February 21, 2006 3:57 PM   Subscribe

PuppyFilter: A friend of my Mother's needs advice on how to train and deal with an abused puppy, and also her son & son's girlfriend whom the dog actually belongs to.

I have a lot of experience with abused animals, but not many puppies. I know a lot of people here have great advice when it comes to dealing with training puppies. Thought I'd get some advice before I responded. Here is the email I received from my mother's friend:

Hi Meredith,

Your mom said i could e-mail you for advice. I'd appreciate any insight you can offer. Here's the story:
My son Daniel and his girlfriend Emily found a dog on Pets Inc. web-site that they wanted to look into adopting. I don't think they even had a picture - just a description. Anyway, they rode over to see Peaches and fell in love with her. I believe she is Pit Bull/ Boxer mix, about a year old. From looking at pictures on the web, I believe she is predominantly Pit Bull.

She was very withdrawn and scared the first day or two. If anyone walked into the room, she immediately got up and moved away. When she fell asleep, she would pop an eye wide open at the least sound. She seems much more relaxed when she sleeps now. She has not barked at all. One of the folks at Pets Inc said he had only heard her bark once. He also told Emily that Peaches does not like Black people.
She does not like my youngest son Drew, which is a great mystery to us. All animals seem to be drawn to Drew and vice-versa. She is terrified of spray bottles and the dog brush.

Now the problem(s):

Neither Daniel nor Emily will exert any authority over this dog. I think they are both feeling so sorry for the abuse she has obviously suffered that they don't want to "make" her do anything. She is a smart dog - I can see that. Peaches is afraid to go down any steps. There is no other way to get to the yard except by steps. Emily makes a pitiful attempt to pull her down the steps every morning and some evenings. Well, she can't get her to go down, so Emily gives up and goes off to school and Peaches does her business (both) on the floor 5 minutes after Emily is out the door. Emily is a small person to start with, and this dog is a year old. I have gently forced her to go down the steps and she does what I took her out there to do. Well, last night it was Daniel's turn to take her out (as Emily watched through the sidelight). He comes back in the door two minutes later to get a dog treat to bribe Peaches to go down the steps. I told him that was not the thing to do - that the treat can come after she does what he took her out there to do. Another two minutes and Daniel is down at the bottom of the steps looking defeated and frustrated. He said he could not get her to go down. I told him to let me try. Well, I did have to pull her down, but she did not do her business. Earlier, when I was the only one there with her, I took her out and down the steps (under protest) and she did do her business.

I know I need to back off, but those two kids will not take charge. Last night I sensed that Emily is getting a little resentful of my firmness with Peaches. I don't want to be in charge. I don't want to get too attached to a pet that isn't mine.

One other thing, Peaches seems to be favoring Emily. When she walks out of the room, Peaches will follow her and will wait behind a closed door for Emily to return. She is not the same when Emily is around. She will obey me when Emily is not there, but digs her heels in and walks away from me when Emily is around.

Do you have any ideas/suggestions?

posted by Meredith to Pets & Animals (16 answers total)
Dogs are pack animals and need to know where they stand within the pack. They need this information. It makes them uncomfortable if this is not obvious. It isn't a matter of domination it's who is best qualified to lead the pack. If you aren't in charge, are they? They aren't qualified. They don't now about cars and poison and touchy neighbors who don't like barking. You need to be able to call them back and have them do what you need them to. They also like to be good at their job wherever they are with in the pack. They enjoy learning. It shows how smart and valuble they are.
Re: the stairs I would probably sit on the stairs with some treats for luring and lots and lots of pats, paraise and affection. This could take an hour. Don't try it till you have the time. This worked for me when I worked with a dog who wouldn't go over grates in the sidewalk which is a similar situation.
Also, they really need to take some puppy training classes and read a bunch of good dog training books. Don't Shoot the Dog or any of the clicker training books are good.
Having an untrained dog is like having badly behaved children. No one wan't to be around them, they have few friends and even their own family don't enjoy them as much as they could if at all.
Pit Bulls can be great dogs but they really, really need traing. Really.
Hope that helps.
posted by BoscosMom at 4:20 PM on February 21, 2006

Well, one obvious thing: Don't wait until bathroom time to get the dog used to the issue with the stairs.

Really though, everyone has to be on the same page in dealing with the dog. If Emily and Daniel want to play house with their rescued child-substitute dog, they'll need to step up and give this dog care and structure and work with Lisa, rather than against her.

Time to sign up for a basic obedience class that emphasizes positive reinforcement and understand that the class is as much about training people the people as it is about the dog-- that means everyone goes to class and does the homework.
posted by Good Brain at 4:39 PM on February 21, 2006

Oh, also. If Emily and Daniel don't want to put in the work to turn a neglected or abused power-breed into a well adjusted dog, they should seriously consider turning it back in to be adopted out again.
posted by Good Brain at 4:41 PM on February 21, 2006

I had the same stairs problem with my last puppy. Bribery is fine--lure (don't yank/pull) the dog up/down with treats, and then go apeshit happy when she gets up/down the flight of steps. Pet her, give treats, and praise her.

Patience, patience, patience, is key. Give it far more than two minutes. Also, repetition is very important. Once I realized that my puppy balked at steps, I started seeking them out. Out for a walk and pass by a church?--I'd take her up the front steps. We'd go up and down the short sets of stairs in front of people's houses we'd pass. You build up exposure and gradually increase your expectations of your puppy, and given time and positive reinforcement, it won't be as big a deal to the dog anymore.

Maybe Laura can give Emily & Daniel tuition for puppy class as a gift. You ought to be "into" training your dog's behavior, because otherwise your puppy couldn't care less about altering its behavior.
posted by neda at 5:06 PM on February 21, 2006

Agreeing with Good Brain. Abused puppy + pit bull + laissez-faire owners will *not* lead to anything good. Can you/she stress that angle, that they're being totally irresponsible in not actively training this dog? Obedience classes just seem like a total no-brainer in this situation.
posted by occhiblu at 5:07 PM on February 21, 2006

Really good advice already. I will be straight up: going by the evidence at hand, I do not think this dog and these owners are a good match, and I think they should return the dog. That said, if they are determined to keep the dog:

The first thing they need to do is get into a GOOD obedience class like yesterday. Fair, reasonable and regular (daily) obedience training is the foundation of a solid, mutually respectful relationship between dog and human, think of it as teaching the dog to speak English. They clearly don't understand how to train the dog, and they are not going to learn by guessing, they need someone who knows what they're doing to teach them how. We learn how to drive, we also need to learn how to train dogs, it's not a natural human knowledge.

There is nothing wrong with luring the dog, as BoscosMom said. I suspect the fundamental problem here is that the dog's owners don't really understand dogs, are using the dog's "abuse" as a reason to be soft on the dog (which simply teaches the dog that they are not leaders - you don't need dominance, you need leadership, dogs are extremely uncomfortable without leadership, and if you won't do it, they will), and don't understand the difference between dog-friendly, reasonable, kind positive training and abdicating all leadership duties. The owners' lack of leadership is making the dog's insecurity worse. The owners' lack of training knowledge is also making the dog's insecurity worse. We need to equip our dogs with the tools they need to live well with humans, fair, reasonable, dog-friendly training and management is the way to do this, dogs are a hands-on animal, they take work. Jean Donaldson's "The Culture Clash" is a great book which will help them understand the dog better.

Finally, forget about the abuse angle. Unless there is rock-solid evidence that the dog was abused (i.e. it was removed from its owners who were observed harming it), it's much more likely that the dog is simply undersocialized and fearful by nature (sadly all too common). Most dogs end up in shelters or rescues for a reason, and that reason is a behavioural problem in an overwhelming majority of cases, it is only rarely abuse (more dogs are euthanized for behavioural problems than any other reason). Do not chalk up to abuse what can be more directly attributed to weak nerves and poor management (i.e. undersocializing). Rescues like to say dogs were abused, but I know from first-hand experience that what people often consider classic "abused dog" behaviour is no different from standard fearful-from-birth dog behaviour. Regardless of the reasons for the dog's behaviour, attributing it to abuse does nothing helpful in terms of working out management strategies, and in fact can be harmful since it can make people go so far overboard that it paralyzes them and dooms their efforts. This dog is going to need a LOT of correct remedial socialization, and even then she may never be a "normal" dog - I do not like the sounds of this situation, I have to be frank, there are many things working against this having a happy ending: the dog's breed(s), the dog's behaviour, the owners' lack of knowledge and willingness to do what it takes, etc. I would advise them to take this dog back and get one more suited to novice owners - big, powerful and strong-willed dogs which also have a temperament problem are not suitable dogs for novice owners who are not natural leaders, and situations like this one are often ones which end up very unhappily. I don't think this situation is fair to the dog, the owners, or the people this dog might come into contact with. I love Pit Bulls, but they are most definitely not the dog for everyone, and they are certainly not dogs for novice owners, especially when they have temperament issues from day one. Sorry.
posted by biscotti at 5:11 PM on February 21, 2006

They took in an pit-bull/boxer combo. They know it's been abused. It has problems with your youngest son and black people (?!). This should raise giant warning signs that this dog may have been used for fighting and/or attacking people. This is a BIG DEAL, especially with a breed that faces the kind of discrimination that pit bulls and boxers do. This dog must have proper training, and you must be firm, or you're could reach a worst-case scenario where it's going to bite someone and the dog will be put down. And believe me, no matter how sweet the dog seems now, it can happen and their tender hearts and generosity will be for naught.

Dogs are very much like people. When you take in an abused child s/he will not fix themselves and automatically become a mentally healthy without any signs the abuse ever happened. It's the same with dogs. Just showing them love isn't enough. You have to teach them to live a different way. And yeah, this takes being firm.

Any pit bull/boxer rescue place will tell you these are smart breeds that can be a wonderfully loving and loyal pets. But like with training any dog, it takes patience and care. And extra resolve, because you have to deal with all the prejudice against that breed. Find a good pit bull rescue place in your area and ask them for advice. They deal with this situation all the time. Ethical Bull Breed Rescue and Referral (especially their mailing list) is a great starting point.

Of course the dog likes Emily better. She rolls over for it. But spoiling does not equal better treatment.

If they don't take responsibility for the dog, for the good of the animal, please please take it back so someone who will give it the love and care it needs and deserves will take it.
posted by schroedinger at 5:11 PM on February 21, 2006

I should have mentioned that by "good obedience class", I mean "look at the AKC (or Canadian KC, if you're in Canada) website, find obedience clubs in your area and take a beginner class with them". This situation needs more than a PetSmart puppy kindergarten class, you need an experienced dog trainer and regular weekly classes for at least the next few years (yes, I said "years", one set of classes is not enough for normal dogs, and it is certainly nowhere near enough for smart, strong-willed, powerful dogs with temperament issues like this one).
posted by biscotti at 5:23 PM on February 21, 2006

Dogs do not take kindly to coercion or force. Don't push, or pull, or drag the dog down the stairs. Period. Don't shove her into anything she is afraid of, thinking that "she'll see it's not so bad." What happens then is the dog sees the scary thing, experiences the person throwing them at the scary thing, loses trust in the person, and adds a fear of the person to a strengthened fear of the object.

So, with stairs: encourage her. Bribe her with food. Get some high-value treats (something stinky and tasty, like cheese or a sliced-up hot dog) and lay them on each step. Praise the dog, offer treats, and pet her as she approaches the stairs. As she goes up and down them, give her lots of treats and attention for doing it. This shows her that stairs will bring her good things, not bad, and she'll be more willing to deal with them.

Dogs need to clearly understand what their owners want from them. We don't have a shared language, but bribes and praise and similar conditioning work pretty well. Manhandling just teaches a dog that its owners are strong and scary.

Re: abuse: whether she was or not, it doesn't matter much. Abused dogs can act that way. Isolated dogs can too. What she needs is socialization and positive conditioning to get over her fears of certain people. (Dogs can be afraid of different genders, races, and ages for no other reason than "Egad! I've never seen anyone like that before!") They might be spooked by hats, beards, coats, anything you can think of. I had a rescue dog who was a complete sweetheart until the day she saw me holding a single lens reflex camera. (...??) The goal of socialization is to get the dog to see/meet/interact with as many varieties of people as possible so they'll not be intimidated by new ones.

These big, strong, high-energy, high-impulse working breeds require a lot of work. The 'working' is just as much a description of what the owner has to do as what the dog was bred to do. If the owners are not willing and able and ready to do everything necessary to polish this scared little girl, maybe they shouldn't have her.

(And as a Boxer owner: these guys are fun, charming, and NOT for beginning dog owners. Good lord, that's a bad match.)
posted by cmyk at 5:37 PM on February 21, 2006

Thanks all. This is some great advice, and I agree about this not being a good match. Both of my dogs were rescues (the former owners of my greyhound are in jail for five years for animal abuse and neglect) so I know firsthand how much patience and training this takes, but I have little experience with puppies or pit bulls. I have actually just pasted all your replies to Lisa and I hope she's able to convince her son and his girlfriend to return Peaches and find another dog more suitable for them.
posted by Meredith at 6:25 PM on February 21, 2006

Ultimately, the mother can't really make the kids do anything. If she's within range of the National Geographic channel, they're showing The Dog Whisperer a couple of times a week. I've got a pit-mix adolescent now and have had a pack of up to 7 in the past, and I've learned quite a bit from the show. There's websites and DVDs as well. It's possible that exposing them to a training methodology presented by someone else might make more of an impression.

Having a well-trained, well-adjusted, social happy dog is certainly a lot more fun than having a neurotic, fearful, sad dog. Maybe that's the message that Mom needs to get through to Daniel and Emily.

I wish her luck.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:29 PM on February 21, 2006

You've gotta scare the shit out of these two. I love dogs, but I don't pretend that they can't be dangerous.

The dog's resentment towards Drew is scary. It's a dominance issue that needs to be dealt with before the dog grows any bigger, and not just by its family. I am not a pitbullphobe (I know pitbulls I would trust with children I love) and I love boxers, but you are right, these are not breeds for beginning dog owners.

It is very rare for a dog to be aggressive with children. They don't necessarily love them, but they accept them as important to the pack. This dog needs behavioral therapy, and it needs to be evaluated by a qualified vet. She needs to accept pack discipline without brutalization, but she is already displaying worrying behavior. Not every dog is meant to be a family dog, just like not every family is meant to be a dog family.

I recommend his article in the New Yorker about the hazards of profiling. Profiling is a bad thing. But so is blind faith when you are dealing with potentially explosive situations.

Personally, I think it would be best for the dog to find a new family, and the family a new dog.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 8:08 PM on February 21, 2006

Schroedinger's advice is exactly right. Daniel and Emily should get in touch with a reputable, experienced pit bull or boxer rescue organization. They're very familiar with breed characteristics and post-adoption problems and they'll be in a better position than anyone to evaluate the dog's behavior realistically and to help Daniel and Emily figure out what to do.
posted by tangerine at 8:57 PM on February 21, 2006

Temple Grandin's book Animals in Translation is a great, fascinating book. It combines discussion of animal psychology research with practical tips for dealing with animals, and especially with abused or problematic animals. The author is an autistic woman who was made famous in one of Oliver Sacks' books. She makes a living applying animal psychology research to fields like cattle ranching.

Also: In my personal experience, it's normal for a dog to bond with one family member in particular. I'm not sure you can do anything to prevent or override this.
posted by mbrubeck at 3:53 PM on February 22, 2006

Just an update for any of you who might be interested- after I replied to Lisa last night with all of your comments, she sent me this email this morning:

Thanks, Meredith. The comments and suggestions were very helpful. Daniel read them with me. He said he and Emily had talked and were willing to take Peaches back if the situation was upsetting me and the household. They had been worried about the whole thing. I asked him if he thought Emily was really attached to the dog. He says she was. I did not know until last night that Emily had never owned a dog at all - only cats. That explained a lot. Anyway, we all sat down and talked when Emily got home from work. She has checked into training, but she checked with PetSmart. I told her to get a reference from the folks at the Vet's office when she takes Peaches in today. I guess we'll see what happens.

Thanks again for your help.


Looks like y'all might have helped them to make the right decision. Thanks, everyone.
posted by Meredith at 4:17 PM on February 22, 2006

Glad things are looking good, Meredith!
posted by occhiblu at 4:04 PM on February 23, 2006

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